June 11, 2020 / 9:11 AM / 2 months ago

Turkey passes neighbourhood guards' bill, alarms opposition

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey granted wider powers on Thursday to a night-time neighbourhood guard force which dates back to the Ottoman era, drawing opposition warnings of potential rights violations as personnel with limited training join the security forces.

Members of the neighborhood guard force or watchmen are pictured during a ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, August 25, 2017. Picture taken August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The guards, dubbed “night eagles”, were revived by President Tayyip Erdogan and began patrolling urban streets in 2017, a year after an attempted military coup.

Under the law, pushed through parliament by Erdogan’s AK Party overnight, they will have the authority to demand people identify themselves, to use force and carry weapons and to apprehend suspects.

“You cannot give someone a gun and send them into the street with broad authority after 40 days of training,” Engin Altay, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said last week.

Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), also criticised the level of guards’ education, saying they would only have a few hours of training regarding human rights.

“This law is not about protecting the people or the district. It is a law to protect the state from the people,” he said in a speech in parliament during debate on the law, warning of a rise in violent incidents involving security forces.

The return of the neighbourhood guards coincided with upheaval following the failed 2016 coup. Turkey has jailed tens of thousands of people and suspended or sacked 150,000 civil servants and security personnel in what critics call a crackdown on dissent and Ankara says is necessitated by security threats.

Police data shows that last year the number of police officers in Turkey rose 7.9% to more than 260,000 with the number of neighbourhood guards nearly doubling to more than 21,000. This year the number of guards is set to rise to 30,000, according to one AKP deputy.

The Interior Ministry has defended the increased role given to neighbourhood guards, saying the daily average of home burglaries nationwide had fallen by 47% to 151 since the force was revitalised.

It said guards undergo three months of training and then have two months of practical training, with 20% of them being university graduates.

Erdogan’s AKP has 291 seats in the 600 seat assembly and had a comfortable majority to pass the legislation with the 46 deputies in the party of its nationalist MHP allies.

Additional reporting by Can Sezer; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan

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